Say, isn't Studio Ghibli the one that makes those really cute movies about forest spirits and flying castles? Uh-huh, but it's also the one that in one ninety-minute masterstroke makes you question every ounce of faith you had in society. When the terms ‘heart-rending', ‘abject misery' and ‘oh my God, I'm going to kill myself' were invented, it was with this movie in mind. It's not due to whimsy that this anime is titled Grave of the Fireflies - there is not even a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel.
And that is precisely what makes this film so beautiful; it does not once flinch from the direst possibilities of human existence, but portrays misery in such a way that we never stop believing this story is worth telling. The film has a different sort of pacing, a refreshing angle on war, and brings a unique flavour to unconditional love, suffering and endurance. Watching it feels a lot like running through quicksand; the obstacles keep piling on, and the more the protagonists claw away at them, the faster they seem to sink beneath their weight. Especially poignant are the interspersed moments of happiness used to relieve the constant anguish, for they usually happen to everyone but Seita and Setsuko. For the characters involved it seems there is no point, but for us, the viewers, it is a vital learning curve.
Perhaps the film's only drawback is that, being such an emotional journey, you rarely feel like revisiting it. I first watched Grave of the Fireflies many years ago (after reading ‘Ghibli' on the back of the DVD and mistakenly assuming it was a Miyazaki film), but since then, this review has been the only excuse I've had to rewatch it. I'll confess that I started sobbing again in the first five minutes because the haunting scenes awoke emotional memories (not actual vivid memories) of the things that were about to happen to the children. Considering I haven't cried like this since the Auschwitz episode in Band of Brothers, I take that as testament to the film's subtle, timeless power.
The quality of animation is fantastic, and that it still looks so good even after all these years is to Ghibli's credit. There are some beautiful details of the grass and the sky reflected in the water in a montage of Setsuko playing by the river. Contrast that with the hellish red hues of the war scenes and what I like to call the ‘ghost' scenes, and you have a movie that weaves a bittersweet undertone into its very fabric. My favourite moment is after the shells fall in the beginning and Seita looks around to see shots of a ladder, a bucket and mop, and a trough - it just so perfectly captures the ordinary amidst the nightmarish devastation. The character designs are of the typical simplistic Ghibli variety, with certain personalities having quirky features. Movement is always perfectly smooth. Where Setsuko is concerned, they simply must have observed a bunch of kids in natural play, for her movements, habits and mannerisms are nothing but realistic. Not to mention that I looked for repeat frames as people ran from the bomb blasts and found there were none.
In terms of the Japanese voice acting, everyone is brilliant, but Setsuko stands out as the pinnacle. As well as being animated realistically, she must surely be voiced by some kind of super seiyuu. Even if you don't like kids (which I don't), you'll still find yourself saying, ‘Ah' at her innocent speeches. The American voice actors in comparison don't come across as mesmerising, mainly because of the difference in pacing, but they do an acceptable job. The soundtrack, although not a prominent feature in itself, is suitably haunting.
The only excuse you could have not to care for Seita and Setsuko is that you're dead. At times, empathy is taken to such excruciating levels that you wonder whether you can take any more. Yet somehow Grave of the Fireflies never ranges into the realms of melodrama and petty sentimentality, meaning you never lose interest in the siblings and their plight.
Setsuko is adorable, temperamental and ignorant of any wider implications (just as a baby should be), whilst Seita is a teenager abandoned in a cold adult world way before his time, and with nothing to cling to but his sister. The two are characterised almost wholly in these terms, which made it easy to view them as representatives of all children of war. They are not brave, independent children, but lost children - lost through war, lost through time, lost through memory. We see so many touching moments between them, that it's impossible to pick out the most important; from Setsuko showing her brother all the ‘money' she has saved, to Seita trying to hold her in his loneliness and being rebuffed, each one takes on such harrowing significance in retrospect.
The supporting characters are realistic enough considering the few minutes we get to spend with each of them, and rightly so, since this is meant to be a historical portrayal. Although not complex in themselves, each of the cast brings a new insight into the uncompromising culture that's developed in response to the terrible times. For example, although Seita's aunt can justifiably be viewed as a miserly bitch, the fact is that food is scarce and her primary concern is for her own family. This is a dog-eat-dog world steeped in conflict, and as terrible as it sounds, two orphan kids are the least of everyone's problems.
Grave of the Fireflies is no less than a classic masterpiece. Watch it if you're dying for an overwhelming emotional experience; watch it if you fancy a no-bullshit plunge into the decay of humanity; and by all means watch it with a box of tissues. Don't watch it if you're looking for another Miyazaki fairy tale.
With their father serving overseas in the Navy towards the end of the World War 2, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko are living as normally as they can. One day during a firebomb raid on the city their mother suffers fatal wounds and the two siblings' lives are turned upside down as they go to live with a relative. After suffering the cruel treatment of their aunt, who makes it clear that their very presence is a nuisance, Seita and Setsuko decide to leave and go to live in an abandoned bomb shelter. With no one else to rely on, Seita and Setsuko try their hardest to live from day to day. Though when food becomes ever more scarce and no one is willing to sell what little provisions they have, life for the pair is increasingly difficult. Then when Setsuko falls ill, Seita begins to realize just how fragile life is...
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